This week I read a great article in The Atlantic by Bret Anthony Johnston called Don’t Write What You Know. . One of the things writers hear all the time is write what you know. Mr. Johnston suggests that this isn’t true; that we should, in fact, write something else.
The article made me go back and think about the thing I always find myself saying to students and writers early in their careers – write what you love. I’m not talking about writing the book of your heart, though that may come of it. No, I’m talking about passion, including something you love in everything you write.
Strong emotions make for good writing. The more strongly you feel about something, the more likely you are to get that point across to your reader. Plus, the more strongly you feel about something, the more likely you are to have a whole bunch of knowledge about that something.
Think about your first love. You know—or did know at the time—all kinds of facts about that person. Why? Because you were in love and when we’re in love, we’re obsessed. We’re obsessed by that boy in our math class in Grade 10 and we know all kinds of things about him. We know which way he parts his hair, which way he walks home, what he has on the front of his notebook, where he sits and with whom.
What obsessed you as a teenager? Were horses your passion? Dark Shadows? Justin Bieber? Comic books? Science fiction? What do you remember about that obsession? I bet you remember a lot, probably enough to write about it without requiring much research.
Passion. Obsession. Love. When we feel any of these things, we want to know everything we can about the object of our passion and we happily spend hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes even years to find out what we can.
This is the good side of writing what you know or writing what you love. But there’s a dark side as well. Sometimes what obsesses us is personal, something we were involved in. Maybe it’s a story we heard as a child, maybe it’s something that happened to us, something we’ve never forgotten.
I had two stories I wanted passionately to tell when I first started writing—one of them was something that happened to me a teenager, one was a moment in time from much, much later. I was absolutely sure I could get every detail on the page because those two things were so clear in my head. I imagined sitting down and just writing what happened.
Not as easy as I’d expected. It took me years to write them. I went through draft after draft, changing POVs, changing tense, trying and trying and trying to get them right, to get the exact thing on the page. In the end, the first story ended right where I had always believed it began and the second ended up as a poem.
What happened? Why, when I’m saying that we should write what we love, was I unable to do just that?
Real life isn’t story. That may be the most important thing I learned about writing. I could take details, pieces, moments from my life and use them in a story, but I couldn’t get that exact moment on the page.
For me, and I suspect this is true for many writers, I needed to distinguish between my life and what is somehow outside of me. When the passion. the love, is for something outside of ourselves (like Dex’s passion for Captain America-check out her blog from Saturday), I think we can write about it more easily. Because trying to get that story, your story, exactly right (which is what happened to me), to get all the emotions, all the sensual experiences, the sequence, the colors, everything exactly right—is impossible. Of if you do get them exactly right, you don’t have a story.
In the end what I had to realize was that what I wanted to write wasn’t a story, it had no arc, it had no beginning or middle or end—it was a moment. And I had to have the courage to change my life, that moment in my life, into a story. And so what I wrote wasn’t exactly how it happened, it was better.
But other things? Other people? Other moments that aren’t so personal? Maybe something you saw in a coffee shop or a story your mother told you about a friend from high school? Oh, yeah. Writers are thieves—we steal everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.